In the story ‘Alone’ from the beloved children’s book Days with Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel, Toad goes to visit his friend Frog, only to discover a note on his door saying that Frog wants to be alone.
Toad, as is his wont, immediately falls into a panic, assuming Frog no longer cares about him. He puts together an elaborate lunch and hitches a ride on a turtle’s back, launching himself out across the water toward the island where Frog is, intending to win his affection back. As he comes in earshot of the island, he shouts,
“Frog! I am sorry for the dumb things I do. I am sorry for all the silly things I say. Please be my friend again!” Then he slips and falls, sploosh, into the water.
Every time I read this story, I laugh, because Toad’s words are so familiar. They are, in effect, an act of contrition, and I am Toad.
We are all Toad. What we may not all realise, though, is that an act of contrition can be expressed in many different words, including something like what Toad shrieks out in his misery. Many of us were made to memorise a particular prayer when we were growing up (or when we joined the Church), but we don’t have to say that specific prayer.
When the Rite of Penance describes a sacramental confession, it says, “The priest … asks the penitent to express his sorrow, which the penitent may do in these or similar words . . .” and it suggests 10 possible prayers, and leaves room for anything that expresses contrition.
Many people in my generation can rattle off something like this one:
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended You, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell [or: because of thy just punishments]; but, most of all, because they offend You, my God, Who is all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Your grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, to avoid all occasions of sin, and to amend my life.
or this shorter one:
Oh my Jesus I’m heartily sorry for having offended thee, who are infinitely good, and I firmly resolve, with the help of the grace, never to offend thee again.
About 93 per cent of Catholic children hear “hardly” instead of “heartily.” A few enterprising children thread this needle by saying, “I am hardly sorry for having been a friend of thee.” And that works. It’s the sincerity that matters, not the getting it perfectly right.
“[T]he Act of Contrition is not primarily a magical formula rattled off thoughtlessly to guarantee instant forgiveness. Rather, it expresses in words a deeply personal act that engages a person’s affections and will.”
So it’s less important to have something memorized, and more important to think deeply about what we intend. A good act of contrition should include an expression of sorrow, a renunciation of sin, and a resolution to change; and there are many different ways you can say it.Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.